19 May 2011

Will Ph.D.s save humanity?

The question, from a backbencher: "If humanity survives the Mayan apocalypse in 2012, it will nevertheless have to deal with economic instability, nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, and myriad other problems. I would like to read into the record two paragraphs from a letter to the editor of Nature (not available ungated) by a U.C.-Santa Barbara professor:
I disagree that we have a glut of scientists with PhDs (www.nature.com/phdfuture). The corporate view of PhD numbers in terms of what the market will bear ignores the major problems that only science can solve in the coming century.
The list is long: natural disasters, such as earthquakes and incoming celestial objects; environmental degradation; sustainable energy; famine and violence; untreatable medical conditions; and threats such as antibiotic resistance. If science abdicates, there is nothing else.
Will holders of the Ph.D. degree save humanity?"

The answer: No.

I would like, first, to quote further from Professor Kosik's letter:
The size of the military is dictated by our defence needs, not the market. In science, by analogy, our global defence needs are soaring.
Spending a few years in the service of science and the greater good, being rewarded with an advanced degree and, for example, going on to teach in high schools is an honourable fix.
I am always glad to read statements such as these, because it gives me an opportunity to quote Richard Feynman: "I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." And, in this case, to remind professors that statements like these, uttered by tenured professors to graduate students, will someday be enshrined next to Marie Antoinette's milkmaid costume.

Kosik has succumbed to the technocratic fallacy (henceforward the TF). The TF is a variant of functionalism and holds that all social problems are analogous to engineering problems. The deficit, for instance, is not the consequence of differing views over the proper scope of federal spending and of federal taxation, considered separately (as they indeed are in our system); rather, it is the result of those damn fools in Washington being unable to work harder and come up with a solution. Similarly, wars, terrorism, crime, and the paradoxical consequences of welfare provision (e.g., the sort of thing covered in the Moynihan Report and other first-generation neocon commentary on the Great Society) are technical problems to which technical remedies exist and may be applied frictionlessly.

It should be immediately obvious that this is an attractive viewpoint to a great many people. And that is a group that includes not merely scientists and engineers, whose vanity it naturally flatters because of its naive faith in "reason" to overcome problems. It also includes a great many politicians and senior civil servants, both in competitive political systems such as the United States and less-competitive ones such as the People's Republic of China. Politicians are attracted to these policies because it offers them a nicely nonpolitical justification for their continuance in office, while similarly allowing them to disparage all those who disagree with them as (to use the Stalinist term) "wreckers."

Yet Kosik's letter, which is as pure an expression of the TF as we are apt to find, shows the real problems with the TF, both as an approach to politics and as a guide to real-world practice. As an approach to politics, the TF fails because it misunderstands the nature of political disagreements. Even political fights over purely technical issues (such as, say, CAFE standards) are always driven by interest or identity, neither of which are amenable to technical fixes and which are often compounded by institutional "pathologies" (which are often just institutional design tradeoffs). As a guide to real-world practice, the TF consequently is always running into the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, which requires the TF's adherents to eventually propose dismissing "political" solutions (which are the product of "irrational" conflict) in favor of ever-deeper technocratic fixes.

That Kosik presumes that "only science can solve" environmental degradation, famine and violence, and Deep Impact-style asteroid threats is to claim, simultaneously, that politics cannot solve these problems. Yet political science has much to say about all of these problems, and even leaving beside classic formulations such as the collective-action problem (and later critics), we should be able to recognize that these are basically political problems, not scientific ones. Famine is not caused by a lack of food; violence is not caused by a lack of periodic tables; and environmental degradation will eventually require a political, not a scientific, solution. Indeed, any scientific "solution" to environmental degradation will almost inevitably cause bigger headaches, since it strains belief that there is a sort of carbon-dioxide penicillin that would heal everything without any side effects.

In the end, the TF can lead to bizarre conclusions, like hedge fund managers' beliefs that the system of private property rights currently in vogue would survive the sort of economic catastrophe that would lead to $25-a-loaf bread. We've learned over the past few years that hedge fund folks are apt to really, really believe in their models' assumptions, but this seems to bespeak a sort of obsessive faith in the God of Equations and a willful ignorance of the God of Experience. Of course, that is why we call it the technocratic fallacy.

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